I must admit, I have a love-hate relationship with templates. On the one hand they can be an effective way to support well-defined business analysis processes, ensuring deliverables are presented in a consistent manner and facilitate a shared vision. On the other hand they can be cumbersome, overly-complicated forms that lead to confusing, boring deliverables that detract from their original intent. As Business Analysts, what can we do to define and refine our templates so they help more than they hinder our goals?
When I’ve worked with clients to enhance their organizational business analysis maturity I’ve developed templates to support the business analysis processes being put in place. Through my work with these organizations, I have come up with some initial overall assessment and template-specific criteria to help figure out when a template is needed and if the developed template is ready for use.
Initial Overall Assessment Criteria
To get started, I usually want to determine which templates are needed versus what may be nice to have or even hamper business analysis activities. Some of the typical questions I will ask include:
- Who performs the business analysis activities for the organization?
- What is their level of expertise and competency in business analysis activities?
- What are the deliverables within the business analysis function for the organization?
- What tools are available to develop and maintain business analysis deliverables?
- How will the content within the business analysis deliverables be used by stakeholders?
- Are there related job functions within the organization that will contribute to a shared deliverable or where the business analysis output is already defined in one of their templates?
- What is the size of the organization or organizational units in scope that will use the templates?
- How diverse is the employee population (in terms of educational background, cultures, and job functions)?
- What is the recent employee turnover rate for the organization?
For each deliverable a BA may expect to develop, you can use the above information to determine whether a template is mandatory, helpful but not absolutely necessary, or has limited value.
In smaller organizations or organizational unit (less than 200 people), I have found less need to have templates for intermediate or seldom-performed activities, particularly if they share a similar background or have been predominantly working together for many years with little turnover. In these situations staff can often quickly understand each other through a variety of communication methods, and are less reliant on standard documentation to achieve a shared vision. In some circumstances, the rigidity of a template can inhibit their dynamic communication or adds an unnecessary layer of work before they can continue to the next task in the process.
Organizations that rely on people to perform business analysis as a secondary job function, or who frequently bring in business analysis consultants or contractors to perform BA tasks, often benefit from having more templates than fewer ones.
Template Quality Criteria
A good template is like a good deliverable: it should be understandable to its target audience, be purpose-driven, and present a clear and consistent message. The University of Reading in the UK has a very good list of 16 quality criteria for any document, which can also apply to templates.
When a template is drafted, the following questions can be put to all the stakeholders involved in the creation and use of deliverables based on the template:
- Is the purpose of the template clearly defined?
- Is it easy to see when the template should be used, either in the business analysis process documentation or within the template itself?
- Are there instructions on how to complete the template? Have they been vetted by the users of the template as being clear and relevant?
- Are there examples on how to complete the template?
- Are there related templates for diagrams or other artifacts that go into the template?
- Is it clear which sections must be completed versus optional?
- For optional sections, does it clearly state when these sections should be included?
- If there are many optional sections:
- Are there several either/or sections?
- Are there sections for infrequent occurrences?
- Would it be better to have separate templates for alternative circumstances?
- Where there is information being pulled from other sources, is it clear how to bring that information into the template in a consistent manner?
- After you’ve used the template a couple of times, do you find yourself having to spend more time customizing or removing information from the template than you do putting information into the template?
Once the template is developed, it should be reviewed regularly to ensure it still meets the needs of the organization given the inevitable changes that occur over time. The only thing worse than no standards is out-of-date standards.
Beyond Traditional Documents
As Business Analyst tools and techniques have matured, alternatives to traditional Office document deliverables are starting to become more prevalent. Whether you are using a wiki, a video, an interactive web-based presentation, a functional or non-functional prototype, or some other manifestation of business analysis work, the above principles for template development still apply. Some level of standardization with these outputs develops consistent stakeholder expectations and ensures the resulting outputs are able to be used in the next stage of the overall organizational process that business analysis is occurring within.
Templates can be a helpful addition to a BA’s toolkit or a hindrance to getting work done; if you are going to use them take the time to develop meaningful and actionable templates that will make your life simpler in the future.
Your Thoughts Please
How has your experience been working with templates? Please use the comment area below to leave your feedback or any questions.